Fantasia 2021: Hello! Tapir

I like Tapirs. What I like most about Tapirs is that they appear to be an abstract medley of other animal parts, randomly paired together. They exist like a child’s drawing, the magnificent creativity of prehistoric nature at work. We look at dinosaurs with intrigue and wonder, like these ancient designs could no longer exist in nature. Our animals look different. They have evolved symmetrically through purpose driven features. But the Tapir is our link to the ancient world. The Tapir has not changed in twenty-million years. Imagine that span of time. That when we see a Tapir, we have an entire lens of mammal history unlike any other. They are often called “living fossils” or “gardeners of the forest,” these lovely names encapsulating their awkward demeanors. Not only do they have prehensile or gripping noses but they have prehensile penises and also the largest penis-to-body-size ratio among animals. They’re very inspiring creatures. My favorite exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo is the Tapir exhibit. I make a point of visiting my dear Tapir friend (who you can see here) anytime I go. They are remarkable creatures that link us to an ancient past that movies often dream about, but also exists in our own reality, so long as we keep Tapirs around.

I also like Hello! Tapir. It really shouldn’t come as any surprise. I like Tapirs. This is a film about a boy and a Tapir. A magical realist film about a boy’s discovery of this ancient creature with a mystical twist. In Japanese mythology, a Baku is a creature composed of many other creatures parts who eats nightmares. A Baku may also refer simply to a Tapir. Hello! Tapir opts for both definitions: a Tapir who eats nightmares. In Japan, a child may awaken frightened from a bad dream, and repeat this mantra: “”Baku-san, come eat my dream.” Name a more interesting cinematic animal.

Hello! Tapir, however, is not a film from Japan. It’s a film from Taiwan. It’s been billed as Taiwan’s first fantasy film that presents itself as a mix of live-action and animation. The story centers around a small fishing village. Young Ah Keat (a precocious Run-yin Bai) helps his father tend to his fishing vessel. There is already something magic in the air: every fishing village is magical and already has the allure of mythology about it. Then tragedy strikes. Ah Keat’s father passes away in a fishing accident. The boy wishes with all his heart that a mythical monster, with a pig body, an elephant nose, and horse ears, will help return his father from sea. The legend goes that the creature stomps through the village with its rhinoceros feet every night, eating all the bad dreams of the villagers. Ah Keat will do whatever it takes to meet the creature and enlist its help in ending his living nightmare.

The magical fantasy here is charmingly drawn out. Kethsvin Chee directs with the lightest of possible touches. We are enraptured by the emotional journey of the young boy and his simple quest for the return of his father. His father never quite gave him affection while he was around. In this searching journey of mythological friendship, the boy learns about friendship and inclusion and what it means to count on your dreams. The abstraction of the animation is pitched differently than the realism of the rest of the work but it strikes an interesting counterbalance between the materials. There is, of course, some fundamental weirdness with the creature. It seems awkward and slightly off and unreal, but so do real life Tapirs, so it’s hard to say there is another possible outcome.

Hello! Tapir is a downright charming film. Festivals are made for these pure, simple discoveries, avenues of big-hearted and small-to-medium budget films that can win an audience over on the premise of accessible entertainments. This is a prime festival film. Because you may not watch it any other way. I would never have encountered Hello! Tapir without exploring the Fantasia circuit. And I’m so glad I have. It’s a beautiful little mixture of magical realism. The Thai word for Tapir is “P’som-sett,” meaning literally “the mixture is finished.” Which is also the short review for Hello! Tapir. The mixture is finished.

7/10

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